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Gilman, Henry

Published onJul 30, 2021
Gilman, Henry

(1893 - November 7, 1986)

Quick Facts

Henry Gilman was known as the "Father of Organometallic Chemistry."

Source: University Archives, Iowa State University

Gilman was another prominent scientist, amongst others, that were added to Iowa State’s Chemistry faculty by Winfred Coover. Gilman arrived in Ames in 1919, having earned his PhD at Harvard in 1918 under Professor E. P. Kohler, widely known then as the "King of Chemistry" in the U.S.

After graduation, Gilman went to the University of Illinois where he was associated with Professor Roger Adams. Gilman left Illinois because he saw unlimited opportunities to develop what he wanted to accomplish in Organic Chemistry by coming to Iowa State’s department under the leadership of W.F. Coover.

He started as an assistant professor of organic chemistry and in 1923, at age 30, was promoted to full professor. He taught all the organic chemistry courses at Iowa State and was a consummate researcher emphasizing organic synthesis methods. He became well known for the quality of the students he graduated and the pioneering work they did under his mentorship in developing Organometallic Chemistry.

Source: University Archives, Iowa State University

Gilman had high expectations for his graduate students and it often took them more than twice as long as the norm to earn their degrees. They were expected to work in the research lab well into the night and on weekends. He did not assign research projects for his graduate students but instead pushed them to produce a series of preparations. Students wrote short publications to spark ideas about additional experiments to perform, drawing all the material together to form a central thesis. There were unending tales from graduate students of what an exceptionally demanding thesis director Gilman was. Later in life, these same people who had obtained their doctoral degrees under Prof. Gilman were among his most loyal and appreciative supporters.

Gilman was a dramatic lecturer; organic chemistry was spellbinding from his mouth. He developed the modest department into one of the finest in the United States with visionary research into organometallic chemistry, building a reputation for Iowa State as a pioneer in the field. He discovered the Gilman reagent, another name for organocopper compounds used for carbon-carbon bond formation in organic synthesis, which bears his name.

Gilman was conversant in his time with all the eminent professors in this country and abroad. Gilman's eminence among these colleagues was one of the reasons why the department at Iowa State ranked highly in the U.S. and became known internationally.

His four-tome Treatise on Advanced Organic Chemistry was coauthored by many of these colleagues with his own chapter on Organometallic Chemistry. He was also instrumental in helping Professor Charles Brown establish Iowa State’s library as one of the pre-eminent chemistry research libraries in world during the first half of the 20th century.

Early in his years in Ames he lived "downtown" on Hodge Avenue and remembered taking the electric FDDM&S interurban trolley to campus. He boarded at the intersection of Hodge and 6th Street and got off at the station directly across from the Chemistry Building. He was an inveterate tennis and handball player who regularly coerced his students and others to play with him before he set out to his home west of campus on Oakland Street, where he moved later in his career.

Henry Gilman also had a part in the Manhattan Project work that was done at Iowa State. Pure uranium was sought early during WWII to make the atomic bomb. Any method capable of separating isotopes was a candidate for research. Among several possibilities, gaseous diffusion or magnetic separation of ions was deemed promising. Both methods, however, depended upon volatile compounds of uranium being available. Of the known inorganic compounds, UF6 was the prime candidate. However, the material was very corrosive. It was also difficult to make because after hydrofluorinating an oxide with anhydrous HF to produce UF4, it then required fluorine gas, another nasty material. A less hazardous compound was sought.

Some kind of organometallic compound was likely to fit the bill. Where in the U.S. was someone expert in producing such materials but in Ames, Iowa! Henry Gilman was commissioned to produce a volatile organic compound of uranium and he brought together a research group. His status and participation in the war effort gave him power to have experienced former students returned to him from posts to which they had already gone. The work went on for a couple of years but unfortunately did not succeed in producing a useful uranium compound.

Another of Gilman's wartime efforts was related to the war in the South Pacific where malaria was endemic. He worked on the synthesis of anti-malarials and other species of possible pharmaceutical interest.

In 1947, due to a combination of glaucoma and detached retina, Gilman became blind in one eye and lost most of his vision in the other. He relied on his wife and students to act as his eyes, reading and writing for him. Remarkably, he continued much of his work and never let his loss of sight hinder his skills. It could be argued that the majority of Gilman’s work was done after 1947.

One former student attested to the phenomenal memory Dr. Gilman possessed. It was perhaps sharpened and refined by the necessity of having his professional literature read to him after his eyesight failed. This student said, “In 1964, I was at State University of New York College, Brockport. I was researching a project involving Grignard reagents, a field in which Dr. Gilman was perhaps the world's leading authority. Facing some puzzling results, I telephoned him at home and asked if he could offer some suggestions that would help me. His response was, "We encountered a similar situation many years ago. If you look into an article we published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in the second issue of October, 1934, perhaps around page XXX, you will find the report of our work." The next day I went to the library and found the article exactly where he remembered it to be.”

Source: University Archives, Iowa State University

Although the usual retirement age is 70, Gilman chose not to retire and remained active in research until 1975 when he was 82 years old. Gilman died November 7, 1986 at age 93.

Henry Gilman's contribution to the reputation of Chemistry at Iowa State was honored in 1973 by the naming of the 1914 building after him as Father of Organometallic Chemistry and first member of the Department to be named to the National Academy of Science. Late in his career, he was the second of the Chemistry faculty to be named Distinguished Professor at Iowa State, a long overlooked local honor. Gilman was characterized by a former student as a courtly gentleman, intensely interested in the lives and affairs of his students and showing a high level of compassion in circumstances of academic stress. He stayed in touch with many of his students for years after they left ISU.

A noteworthy footnote in Gilman’s story at Iowa State was the “Gilman Pipeline.”

In the 1920s and 1930s organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League worked tirelessly to achieve equal rights for African Americans. During this time period, very few were able to pursue a higher education in any discipline. Despite these nearly-insurmountable social and economic challenges, some were able to pursue graduate degrees in various fields.

A 1946 book, Holders of Doctorates Among American Negroes, covered 1876-1943. In 1971, Negroes in Science provided statistical information on African Americans who earned PhDs in various science fields from 1876-1969.

According to the 1971 author, four of the top five producers of African American Chemistry PhD graduates were located in the Midwest: Wayne State University, University of Chicago, The Ohio State University and Iowa State University.

Iowa State’s history of producing African American chemists began with George Washington Carver, an agricultural chemist who earned his MS in 1896.

In the 1930s, Henry Gilman began to establish a remarkable legacy of producing African American PhDs. Gilman was opposed to racial discrimination and frequently had African American students in his research group. In 1933, one of Gilman’s students, Nathanial Calloway became the first African-American PhD chemist west of the Mississippi.

In the 1950s, ISU had at least 16 African Americans enrolled in the Department of Chemistry. Considering that only 42 Black Americans earned a doctorate in Chemistry in 2003, Gilman's efforts are truly notable. This 'critical mass' of students at ISU served as a key retention factor for the success of these students in the department. Alongside Gilman's scientific achievements, it is important to recognize his efforts to create a 'proverbial' pipeline of African American PhD.chemists as well as his relationship with HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) where he actively recruited graduate students.

Selected Sources

Excerpted from Harry J. Svec’s Chemistry at Iowa State University: Some Historical Accounts of the Early Years, edited by Katherine Svec, with additional information from ISU websites.

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